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The Titfield Thunderbolt
Heisenberg might have stayed here
qatsi
Yesterday we went to Dulwich Picture Gallery to see the Adriaen van de Velde exhibition. In comparison to some of the other exhibitions I've seen there over the past few years, it was a bit underwhelming, with a rather small number of paintings and quite a few small-scale chalk sketches. Nevertheless, there's no question about the quality of the paintings. At several points, notes were made on the staggeringly high prices paid for some of these works, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries; one piece fell out of favour when it became apparent that the group portrayed was not a self-portrait of the artist and his family.

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Book Review: Empire of the Fund - The Way We Save Now, by William A Birdthistle
I picked this up recently in a work book sale. At a glance I wondered at its American bias, but thought it would probably be readable nonetheless, which turned out to be right; whenever the text refers to 401(k)s or IRAs, a British reader might as well substitute SIPP or more general defined contribution pension scheme. (Both are used to provide for retirement; at least in this book, there's no concept that maps to an ISA). There's quite a technical section on how funds are structured, and then something of a lecture on fees. Later chapters describe some dubious and/or unlawful practices (late trading, market timing and selective disclosure).

The author seems to have an agenda that fund managers typically do everything they can to maximise the fund size, because that is the driving force behind their own revenue, and that sometimes this creates a conflict of interest for the fund manager between their own revenue and the interests of some or all of their investors. It's a fair point to some extent: not all fund management expenses increase in proportion to the fund size, and typically institutional investors get a better deal than retail ones in buying the same goods and services. But it does feel as though he goes on about it a bit, when the alternative for retail investors, of doing everything themselves, is generally impractical, and his solution seems to be mostly around better education, which is a worthy but I fear impractical aim, though one to which this book contributes.

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Last night we went to Reading Film Theatre to see The Commune. It's quite a while since I have been; the programmes have been quite variable in the past few years. For a while it seemed not much different to the multiplexes, though cheaper and a few months behind. The lecture theatre has been refurbished and the prices have gone up, but it's still cheaper than the multiplex. The audience was fairly sparse.

The story is based on an autobiographical play by Thomas Vinterberg. It's the 1970s; Erik, an architecture lecturer, inherits his father's large Copenhagen home and is persuaded by his wife Anna to turn it into a commune. Several friends join them, but of course things don't quite run according to plan. It felt a little like Abigail's Party crossed with Nordic noir; an atmospheric, period piece, full of ambiguity.

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Book Review: Relativity - The Special and the General Theory, by Albert Einstein (with introduction by Nigel Calder)
Special relativity was one of the first topics I studied as an undergraduate, and one of the few that didn't require mathematics beyond A-level. General relativity, on the other hand, was off the syllabus, even for final year students specialising in theoretical physics, and I've always been frustrated by that. I may have read this book as a teenager, I'm not sure; I certainly recall reading Bertrand Russell's ABC of Relativity, which was described somewhere as lucid but seemed to me to be the antithesis of the word. Anyway, Einstein's own account of both theories is very readable, although the non-specialist should be warned it does not dispense altogether with equations (though skipping these would not severely dent the book). Mostly the text is an argument of logic, based on some self-evident axioms, and one less apparent, at least to physicists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (the invariance of the speed of light from the velocity, relative to its source, of an observer). About half of the book is assigned to special relativity, and as such didn't offer me any insight, but was well constructed; and most of the remainder is assigned to general relativity. Although Einstein avoids going into detail on the maths here, it does at least give me a few hints of what tensors are about and how they could produce his theory, so I think it can be counted a success.

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Book Review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, by Natasha Pulley
This was another volume that was already on my "to-read" list when I found it in the work book sale. It is London, 1883: Thaniel Steepleton is a telegraphist working for the Home Office, and he receives messages warning of an Irish republican attack to take place in six months' time. On arrival home one evening, he also discovers his flat has been broken into, but nothing has been taken. Instead, a pocket watch has been left for him. Some spoilersCollapse )

I did find it interesting to compare the plot, and the science, with The Time Traveler's Wife - in this case seeing into the future rather than uncontrollably jumping around time, and the use of the ether theory - contemporary for the time - as an explanation, is clever, and even though it was eventually disproved, the way things are constructed allows for the knowledgeable reader to consider fantasy quantum mechanics as an alternative explanation. I particularly enjoyed the Gilbert and Sullivan cameos. There are a few unexpected twists and turns; some aspects of the resolution surprised me, and weren't as satisfying for me as a more conventional conclusion might have been, but on the whole, I'd recommend this.

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Last night we went to see the Michael Nyman Band at the Barbican. It's a few years since I've been there but not much has changed. In the balcony, pairs of red LEDs staring towards us from the lighting deck did make me think we were being watched by the Sand People.

It's the fortieth anniversary of the group and the concert was something of a retrospective. Many of the works were definitely familiar, some tentatively so, and others new to me. The main part of the concert was presented with works ordered chronologically, from 1976 to the present day. I felt that soprano Marie Angel didn't come over as clearly as Lucy Skeaping in the original recording of Bird List Song (here with added educational value); it's difficult to balance classical human voice with acoustic and amplified instruments, though the overall craziness was there. There were two numbers from The Draughtsman's Contract, probably one of the more well-known works in the concert. In particular, during Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds it struck me quite how much energy the performers were putting in. In some sense, the music is simple, being minimal and repetitive; but it certainly requires stamina. Nyman nonchalantly, and almost comically, discarded scores onto the floor as we progressed.

Some of the pieces were accompanied by short films or excerpts - Fish Beach, Knowing the Ropes, and NYman with a Movie Camera, for example. Angel had more work to do in the second half, particularly when Nyman turned to the dark side with two selections from his Celan Songs. There was definitely more music than listed in the programme, and the first of two encores was a Nyman solo, from The Piano. As such we finished a bit later than I'd hoped but all things considered we had reasonable luck with the tube and train back.

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Book Review: The Road to Oxiana, by Robert Byron
If my previous book was an imitation of the 1930s, then this is the real thing, being the diary of Byron's journey with Christopher Sykes starting at Venice, across the Middle-East to Afghanistan in 1933-4. Allegedly an architectural adventure, the writing is at least as much ethnographic and political.

This edition begins with an introduction by Bruce Chatwin, written around 1981 and somewhat polemical on the then current state of Afghanistan compared to the 1930s. I have to say, to me it reads rather naïvely now.

It is perhaps reassuring, if not comforting, to discover some themes that weigh down on recent history in fact extend much further back in time. I wasn't surprised by his writing of the conflicting Arabic and Jewish perspectives in British Palestine; but it was novel for me to discover that the Soviet Union was engaged in border skirmishes with Afghanistan. Much of his time is spent in Syria, Iraq and Iran (Persia); in a bizarre attempt to protect his diary from any prying eyes, the Shah is referred to throughout as "Marjoribanks".

The overall impression is part Lawrence of Arabia, part Jonathan Meades, and part Agatha Christie - especially in his visit to an archaeological site jealously presided over by a German academic who forbids photography. Some locals are welcoming, others less so; more than once they are suspected of spying, and frequently the picture is one of a lawless country. Forever the victims of inadequate transport conditions and endless visa negotiations with local governors and dignitaries, the plucky Brits nevertheless do find many sites worth describing, even if they are not able to visit all the places they intend.

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Book Review: Westmorland Alone, by Ian Sansom
I picked this up earlier this year at a work book sale. The title caught my eye, of course, and on further inspection it looked like a light-hearted pastiche of golden-age crime fiction.

I wasn't far wrong. Stephen Sefton, the narrator, is an assistant and photographer to "Professor" Morley and his daughter Miriam, who are compiling a series of "County Guides" (possibly in the style of Arthur Mee's The King's England). On this trip, Sefton travels by train to meet Morley at Appleby, but as he arrives there is a train accident. Morley, like Holmes, is a polymath unaffected by the human emotions of tragedy, and carries on with his research without much sensitivity, taking the party to archaeological excavations at Shap and a fair at Egremont. A predictably small cast of predictably dubious characters continuously appear in the story, and there are various twists and turns in the plot.

The character of Morley struck me as somewhat reminiscent of Edmund Crispin's Gervase Fen; a detective with a love for the motor car (although Morley himself doesn't drive it) and with enough of a common touch when he chooses to mix with cabbages and kings. Sefton peppers his narration with references to Morley's books, which is fun at first, but becomes tedious. Miriam is intelligent and fun, but has little to do other than to drive and to make all the waspish comments. The precise date of events is initially unclear - Sefton has returned from the Spanish Civil War, which gives a rough indication - and later in the book, 1937 is established as the date. The narration is made far later, as Sefton reflects on Beeching's axe, but this doesn't feel right for the level of detail he is able to recall. As such it was enjoyable but I did find a few aspects a little irritating.

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Book Review: Stalin - New Biography of a Dictator, by Oleg V Khlevniuk
I picked this up in a work book sale over a year ago: theoretically interesting but hardly likely to be positive reading material. I think that's how it turned out. Khlevniuk occasionally highlights the partial rehabilitation of Stalin in today's Russia, but certainly doesn't participate in it. I did find some interesting details: for example, Stalin's relatively thorough education and literary skills, and some hints that there may have been elements of mental illness as a factor in some of his paranoid actions. Khlevniuk makes it clear he isn't striving for a comprehensive biography, and in one area with which I am more familiar, there is only a single mention of Shostakovich, and none of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. More broadly, the book also clarifies aspects of some other personalities and events: for example, Lenin was every bit as ruthless in dealing with opposition. Stalin may have created the persona of a great war leader, but only by reluctantly giving his generals freedom to take control of the military situation.

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I was given a flyer during the last week or two at the Proms for a concert featuring The Bach Players in Hampstead. We decided it looked interesting enough to be worth the effort, and booked tickets. Unfortunately we've both had colds this week and Mrs Q decided not to come along, so I was on my own.

I realised once I'd got as far as Reading that I hadn't packed my umbrella, but fortunately the rain had stopped by the time the train got to London. At that point it was mystery tour time, as I ventured out to Finchley Road tube station, from which the venue (St John's Downshire Hill) was about a 20-minute walk (closer to Hampstead, but the Northern Line was not so convenient), in which I managed not to get too lost.

At the start, they announced that they had swapped round the ordering of the programme from that advertised, so in the first half we had an arrangement of some canons from the Goldberg Variations (specifically, those discovered in 1974), followed by the Peasant Cantata. Silas Wollston introduced the canons; Rachel Elliott and Matthew Brook sung the cantata. To my eye Brook has a passing resemblance to Paul Eddington and certainly gave us a variety of amusing facial expressions. Bach's sense of humour was evident as he parodied both town and country singing of the period.

In the second half, the pieces played were the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and the Coffee Cantata, so again a light-hearted finish to the concert. The venue was full and well-matched to the size of the ensemble.

The concert was a little later than I'd hoped in finishing, and despite making good progress and being quite lucky with tube connections, I arrived in Paddington too late for the 22:18 train (it had vanished from the display boards and a minute after arriving I heard the sound of a departing train). So I boarded the 22:30 instead. Unpleasant journey homeCollapse )For some time Mrs Q has said it has felt like the end of the Weimar Republic; now it really feels as though 1930s Germany is upon us.

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